Norfolk Southern CEO reflects on year since East Palestine derailment

‘We’ve kept every promise that we made,’ top leader of Atlanta-based railroad says
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw speaks during an interview at the Norfolk Southern headquarters in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. In a new interview with the AJC, ahead of the one-year anniversary, Shaw discusses the 2023 East Palestine train derailment and what has been done since it happened. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw speaks during an interview at the Norfolk Southern headquarters in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. In a new interview with the AJC, ahead of the one-year anniversary, Shaw discusses the 2023 East Palestine train derailment and what has been done since it happened. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw had been at the helm of the Atlanta-based railroad for just nine months when he faced one of the biggest calamities in the company’s history.

A Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed on the edge of tiny East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, 2023.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Shaw reflected on the cleanup, efforts to compensate residents and help the town rebuild and how the incident has changed Norfolk Southern. He also acknowledged the work that’s left to be done.

Editor’s note: The following has been edited for length and clarity.

On the cleanup and response effort to date:

“I’m encouraged by our progress. We’ve kept every promise that we made. We also understand there’s more work to be done. We moved off the site about 175,000 tons of soil and 41 million gallons of water. We’ve exited the most intensive phase of the environmental remediation and now it’s more of a function of backfill (and restoration).

“Consistent with what we’ve done over the past year, we’re listening to the community and let them guide how we approach things. And of course we are working under the oversight of the EPA and the Ohio EPA.

“We’ve committed over $100 million to help the community recover and help the community thrive over the long term. I get up there a couple of times a month. I was there just last week.

“As I go out there now, what I’m hearing is more conversation about resiliency and recovery from the community and more conversations from the community about taking all their energy and applying it to a positive path forward.

“A lot of the focus is on the economic development of the community. We’ve done a number of things to assist that, you know, our $25 million commitment to the park ... (and) a $25 million commitment to a first responder training facility, which will draw first responders from the entire region.

“There’s no playbook for this. What I did expect to do is do what’s right and focus on the long term. And from day one, I said that we were going to clean the site safely and thoroughly, with urgency. We were going to help the community recover and we’re going to help the community thrive. And we’re going to listen to the community and we’re going to provide a response where five years from now, 10 years from now, we could look back and be proud of our response. But frankly, more importantly, the citizens in the community could look back and be proud of our response.

An aerial photo shows where crews are backfilling stone and gravel on the site of the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern freight train derailment, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in East Palestine. (Matt Freed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Matt Freed

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Credit: Matt Freed

“We’ve been we’ve been around for well over a century, close to two centuries. And safety has always been our top priority.

“And I knew we could get better. So, we have continued to invest in safety. We have done it through technology, through our six-point safety plan. We’ve done it through people or processes. We’ve done it through hiring a former admiral who used to run the Navy nuclear propulsion system, who’s reporting directly to me with a team of former Navy nuke folks, to help us invest in (and) enhance our safety culture. And we’re seeing positive benefits. Our mainline accident rate in 2023 declined 42%, and the number of mainline accidents on Norfolk Southern last year was (the) lowest in industry. And we can do better.

On East Palestine residents’ continued health concerns since the derailment:

“I’m certainly sensitive to it. I certainly understand it. EPA and Ohio EPA and local health authorities continue to test. ... They all come back with the same result. The air is safe to breathe. The water is safe to drink. For those who do have symptoms with which they’re uncomfortable, we encourage them to go see a trusted health professional and Norfolk Southern will pay the bill for that medical visit.

“We also understand over the long term that’s an issue and so we’re working with key stakeholders on building a long term medical fund. We’re still in the process working with key stakeholders to get it established.

“We’ve invested $4.3 million to enhance the village water system with the use of more modern technology.

(Top L-R) Gov. Brian Kemp and Norfolk Southern President Alan Shaw speak at a first responder training at Norfolk Southern's East Point rail yard on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

“We also heard a concern about property valuations and so we’ve instituted a homeowner Value Assurance Program. And while we’re encouraged that the reports for the holidays were the values were rising in the area, we’re making that available to anybody who needs to use it.”

On the proposed Railway Safety Act in Congress:

“I’ve been in D.C. and in the media as a vocal proponent, offering my full-throated endorsement for many of the provisions in the various railway safety bills. I do think that it requires an industry-wide solution, recognizing that we operate in a supply chain ecosystem.

“You just look at the NTSB’s preliminary report, which showed the NS crew did everything right, there were no track defects. The hotbox detection technology was working, and the NTSB is really focused on a catastrophic failure of a wheel bearing on a car that no railroad owns, which tells me that it requires a solution that includes our customers. It includes car builders, car owners, and certainly railroads as well.

“We’re taking a number of actions to enhance safety outside of legislation, and it’s certainly delivering meaningful results.

“We understand that a safe railroad is a successful railroad.”

On Norfolk Southern’s future in East Palestine:

“We’ve just bought property in downtown East Palestine. And we’re refurbishing it now; it’s going to be a permanent field office for Norfolk Southern, and it’s going to house our family assistance.

“We’re gonna see this thing through.”